By Bruce Jacobs

By Keith Richards
Little, Brown and Company ($29.99, 547 pp.)

“Saul Bellow: Letters”
Edited by Benjamin Taylor
Viking ($35.00, 552 pp.)

Growing old…it happens to the best of us, none quite so memorably as Eliot’s Prufrock wearing the bottoms of his trousers rolled and slobbering peach juice down his shirt. Well, there is no Prufockian shuffling about in two memoirs dancing at the top of this year’s holiday gift book lists. Keith Richard’s “Life” and Saul Bellow’s “Letters” are, instead, entertaining stories about two twentieth century giants in literature and music who lived hard and aged gracefully…and never lost sight of their art.

Richards is rock’s biggest bad boy. His new autobiography “Life” at the age of 67 bubbles over with wonderfully glib descriptions of a life fully lived, out of which emerges a surprising portrait of a man shy with women, playful with children, well-read, and wholly at home with himself. Oh yeah… and he also plays a signature open-tuned five string guitar like nobody else, writes songs in his sleep, and consumed more drugs than any star still living (a survival record he attributes to using only the best pharmaceutical grade products). In human years, his experiences should put his age at more like 100.

Saul Bellow died five years ago at age 90. A professional writer for sixty years, he married five times; fathered a daughter at age 84; won the Nobel prize (among many others); spent decades in and out of court fighting divorce settlements; quarreled with critics, publishers, and colleagues over both grand and petty issues; and, fortunately, was a prolific correspondent with many of the world’s literary stars of the 20th century.

Having just read both of these equally long books, I am struck by how similar these great artists are, and how similarly they chronicle their lives. Bellow’s letters are filled with frank and often funny assessments of his times, his work, and his colleagues. Richards’ autobiography (put together with the help of journalist, writer, friend James Fox) is a remarkably detailed and uninhibited reflection on the people, shows, albums, and dissolution that have filled his life.

Bellow seemed to know he would lead a life of writing from the start, just as Richards knew music was his thing while strumming along to songs on Radio Luxembourg with his first cheap guitar – neither ever did anything else. They were professionals making a living at their art; and as such, they struggled with finding success and criticized those who stood in their way. They had their self-doubts. They had their fun. And, boy, did they love their women.

A Jew growing up in Chicago with intellectual friends, Bellow displays in his letters perhaps a more erudite artist than the one exposed in Richards’ autobiography; but in fact, Richards can be more erudite than one expects and Bellow can be more crude than his image suggests.

Bellow is hard on friends and critics alike: “I don’t ask myself why the Times prints such miserable stuff, why must I be called an ingrate, a mental tyrant, a thief, a philistine enemy of poetry, a narcissist incapable of feeling for others, a failed artist…Such things are not written about industrialists, or spies, or bankers, or trade union leaders, or Idi Amin, or Palestinian terrorists, only about an author who wanted principally to be truthful and to give delight.” But he is also just as hard on himself: “I can have only misgivings at this stage. Clearly, the book is not what it should be, not what I can write…The writing is sound, the idea is a genuine one. The rest is hash, a mishmash for which I deserve to be mercilessly handled.”

Richards is rough on Mick Jagger but loves him like a brother: “Sometimes I miss my friend. Where the hell did he go? [But] I know when the shit hits the fan, I can guarantee he’ll be there for me, as I would be for him, because that’s beyond any contention.” He is equally ambivalent about Eric Clapton: “And then Eric left the Yardbirds and went away on a sabbatical for six months and came back as God, which he’s still trying to live down.” With Brian Jones at the end, Richards has no mercy: “So we got to rely on him not being there…for the next five days we won’t see the motherfucker, and we’ve still got a record to make. We’ve go sessions lined up and where’s Brian? Nobody can find him, and when they do, he’s in a terrible condition.”

Among their many anecdotes and personal asides, these books also deliver frequent insights into the process of making art, with Bellow the truth-seeker and Richards the entertainer…and vice versa – which is why their novels and music are so good.

Here’s Richards’ blunt description of how he and Jagger wrote the songs: “In those days I used to set up the riffs and titles and the hook, and Mick would fill it in…There you go, this one goes like this, ‘I met a fucking bitch in somewhere city.’ Take it away, Mick. Your job now, I’ve given you the riff, baby.”

In a letter somewhat critical of his friend Ralph Ellison, the more contemplative Bellow talks about writing: “I think this is the fault of all American books, including my own. They pant so after meaning. They are earnestly moral, didactic; they build them ever more stately mansions, and they exhort and plead and refine and they are, insofar, books of error. A work of art should rest on perception. ‘Here’ in other words ‘is my vision, be meaning what it may.’ The rest doesn’t count a bit. Ralph is wrong to think that it did. I tell him so often.”

Outspoken and frank, both Richards and Bellow lose some friends along the way. It is Bellow who articulates the dilemma for both of them as they age into more solitary lives: “You told me once that one didn’t need many friends; that is perfectly true and it’s also just as well since one need not expect to have too many.”

For both, it is the love of a woman at the end that saves them from the world and their own excesses. Janis is the wife (his fifth) who holds Bellow together through his failing eighties in Vermont, and Patti (his current wife of 25 years) is the one who cares for Richards in their home in Connecticut. As well-known womanizers, they become remarkably monogamous in their old age.

In a letter written three years before his death, Bellow best sums up the secret to an artist’s long life: “There comes a moment, with increasing frequency, when artists feel they are hopelessly surrounded by goats and monkeys. I am against falling into despair because of superficial observations such as the foregoing. Actually, I have never stopped looking for the real thing; and often I find the real thing. To fall into despair is just a high-class way of turning into a dope. I choose to laugh, and laugh at myself no less than at others.”

There are plenty of laughs in both books. That is one of the surprises that binds these artists even though they write in such dissimilar styles. They both lived large and lived long. It is a pleasure to read these stories of their lives; they leave me freshly optimistic about old age and convinced that Eliot got it wrong. There will be no white flannel trousers and walking on the beach for me.

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